Sitting at the cafeteria at Coral Reef Water World, close to my home, I was at a state of half-slumber after a gym workout and sauna session. Then I suddenly perked up, as if someone had tapped me on the back of the head.
In sauntered one off-duty staff member, who made his way to the buffet to queue up with the other customers for some refreshments.
This bodybuilder actually worked in the kitchen of the very buffet he was waiting at. In a few years he could have a superb, Truly-Ripped physique, if he steers his weight training gym workouts in the right direction alongside a proper, high protein diet.
My emotion started to rise. As I put out my hand to reach his, he took it, and I held it tightly. After a short conversation, all I could say was,
I've been to Santa Monica as well.
For instead of the characteristic blue uniform which distinguishes every Coral Reef staff from the public, he sauntered in wearing a black tee shirt with the lettering blazing across his chest:
Why the emotion? Because seeing his tee shirt image brought back memories of this Californian resort which is actually a district of Los Angeles.
There were questions I would have wanted to ask this guy. Did he go as a backpacker? If so, did he stay at the superb H.I. Santa Monica Backpackers Hostel on 2nd Street, close to the famous pier? The same place where I stayed in 1995 and 1997? Did he stroll though 3rd Street Parade, a traffic-free avenue with bushes trimmed to look like Dinosaurs proudly showing off to the crowds? And did he wander through the excellent indoor shopping mall with a wide choice of attractive eateries? And did he stroll to the end of the pier to watch the sunset while the gulls encircle the air above, and then occasionally perch on one of the safety barrier posts, along with a pelican on another? How I would have loved to hear his stories.
But the more I got to know this fellow, the less convinced that he had ever set foot on the Californian coastline. As many of these working men, as opposed to gap-year students, he would have much preferred to fly out for a break in such places as Iberia with a group of mates to what really amount to a glorified boozing session. And the tee-shirt? Either somebody else brought it back as a present, or it was bought at a fashion boutique in the West End or even at a nearby town of Reading.
And that's what seem to be the experience I have seen of Britons traveling overseas. In groups. And booze, plenty of it. I'm not talking about escorted tours here. Rather, I'm referring to an informal group of mates flying out to have a good time. In a group, each feels safe in the company of others. Whether someone falls ill, or drank too much and is sick on the sidewalk, or has picked up a bug from the hotel pool, or suffered a bout of diarrhea, or for that matter had his wallet or bank cards pick-pocketed, in a group there is that assuring feeling that with such support, a crisis overseas is minimal and one can ride it much better in company.
It is very different to what I call travel.
When I say travel, I mean TRAVEL!
One term I came across while browsing an American website, was the word vagabond. It simply means to travel aimlessly, without too much planning, or even no planning at all. It describes a lone backpacker. A lone backpacker is vulnerable to anything that goes amiss. There is no support from others. Just a piece of paper called an insurance policy making him believe that he has peace of mind.
If you click on this page, December 2010, one of my articles, on being single, describes some of my experiences as a "vagabond", along with a later article, Jerusalem which detail some extraordinary experiences as a lone backpacker in the Middle East.
But this sort of travel does carry risks which are not felt so badly by those who travel in a group, whether escorted or informal. These are my experiences:
1976 - Catching a bug while in Israel. I was down with a fever for three days in bed at a home of an Arab family who offered hospitality.
1981 - Having all my travelers cheques pick-pocketed while standing in a packed train on route to Florence from Pisa. When I arrived at Florence, I came across this pensione, a hotel with shared, dormitory-style bedrooms. There was a bed available and I took it. Later that day I noticed all my money gone, and it could not have happened on the worse moment, Friday evening, after all the banks closed for the weekend. So instead of "living it up" in this artistic city, I spent more than an hour feeling very foolish at a police waiting room to register the loss, a necessity before I would be eligible for a refund from the bank.
When I told the hotel proprietor of my plight, she was kind enough to give me a panettino for prima colazione, at a hotel which don't normally serve breakfast to its guests, and she gave me a few lire to buy something to eat during the day. Such was a weekend which I had absolutely nothing to live on until the Monday, when I had the bank refund, after which together with the hotel tariff, I had to pay for the bread and repay the loan. Was I pleased to board the train for Viareggio, a random stop on the west coast of Italy.
1995 - I would think that booking a hostel in New York City would have been easy-peasy. After all, it was September, the kids were back at school, the students had returned home. So after being told over the phone that there were no places left, after arriving in New York, I went from one hostel to another, until I came across this seedy hotel on 8th Avenue and West 52nd Street. I had already knew of this hotel, I had spent a night there soon after landing at J.F.K. Airport that evening in 1978, after a good search around.
As before, I looked out across the avenue at a deli, closed for the night, as I was unable to sleep at one in the morning. Outside, a group of young Afro-Caribbeans were having a brawl, their loud voices carried through the street. In my room, the floor was populated with cockroaches scurrying across and under the bed.
Yet I was happy. Another adventure as a vagabond was about to begin, including sleeping at the Huckleberry Hostel in the suburb of St Louis, Missouri, where there were dead 'roaches in the food pigeonholes and a live mouse scurrying across the kitchen. And yet I made friends with someone who gave me a spare Greyhound map of the USA.
It was that same hostel which had toilet cubicles fronted by those Old West Saloon double swing doors. So the embarrassment I felt answering a call of nature and risking having other people looking straight in!!! Door-less loo cubicles I also came across in the San Diego area. Maybe the discomfort I felt in using them shows that I'm very British after all.
And the year 2000. That's when Alex, my wife and I decided to celebrate our first wedding anniversary by doing perhaps the last backpacking holiday in Israel. She was 18 weeks pregnant with our first daughter Rosina when we touched down at Lod Airport. Two days later, we began to make a bus journey from Tiberias to Haifa, then on to our hotel in Ishfya, some miles away on top of the Mt Carmel ridge, which separated the port of Haifa from the Mediterranean coastline.
What I didn't realise as we arrived at the bus depot in Haifa was that the Rosh HaShannah or the Jewish New Year was about to start, and with just about the whole of Israel shutting down, the city was like a ghost town. The only form of transport still running were taxis.
As if to echo Florence of 1981, we were absolutely penny-less. But this time not as a victim of a pickpocket, but from my own lack of foresight to visit a bank while we still had the chance. Stuck with a wedge of useless travel cheques, Alex and I made our way across the city, and began the long ascent up the stairs passing through narrow alleyways as we slowly made it to the summit of Mount Carmel, allowing us a terrific view of the coastline below us. But with heavy rucksacks and an unborn child to boot, we made our way along the road which was meant to take us to Ishfya, eventually.
When we realised we still had a long way to go, we sat on a roadside bench, my face in my hands, in despair. Not so much for myself, since I had spent many nights away from home under the stars. But I was concerned for my wife and her condition.
Soon a taxi pulled up in front of us and the driver leaned out and asked in English where we want to go.
"To Stella Carmel in Ishfya! But we have no money on us whatsoever!"
"Get in!" The driver ordered as he got out to open the trunk to accommodate our luggage.
Inside the car, the driver actually gave us ten shekels! He then explained that he pastored a church nearby, and could not pass by two stranded travelers without lending a hand.
Backpacking. There is something about it which no group travel can match.
There are highlights in the experience, like from the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, after a day's hiking, looking up at the magnificent display of stars in the clear night sky, seeing thousands of stars I was never able to see from above the UK! Or likewise in Australia, looking up at the Southern Cross, directly overhead. And snorkeling above the corals of the Great Barrier Reef. But the most astonishing moment was in 1997, when the Greyhound bus I was on took a service stop between Townsville and Cannonvale, on the East Australian Pacific Highway linking Cairns with Brisbane and Sydney. As I sat alone at a table at the cafeteria, another bus pulled in for the same reason, and its passengers lined up at the buffet counter. Presently, while meditating, a voice calls out:
I looked up. I was alone, over 10,000 miles from home. Nobody knew me here. As such, I did not recognise the stranger standing right next to me.
"Yes, I'm Frank, but who are you?"
"You don't remember? I gave you the spare map of the USA in St Louise two years ago. Remember? That dingy hostel?
Yes, I remember that well. Backpacking - or Vagabond. With all its high points, it is an unforgettable experience.
But it's coping with the low points which turns travel into a real, true-to-life adventure.
Oh well, I guess it's off to the boozer...